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New limousine laws a priority, state lawmakers say

New limousine laws a priority, state lawmakers say

Ten months after deadly Schoharie crash, legislation still pending
New limousine laws a priority, state lawmakers say
NTSB investigator Dennis Collins of Virginia speaks to a state trooper at the site of the limo crash.
Photographer: Erica Miller

SCHOHARIE -- It's been 10 months since an out-of-control stretch limousine careened through a rural state highway intersection and into a ravine, killing 20 people, most of them from the Capital Region.

While the limo company operator faces felony accusations that he intentionally put a defective vehicle on the road, state legislators in Albany have accomplished little in efforts to keep it from happening again.

Local state legislators are optimistic something will happen in 2020, if not in a special session sooner.

"If you ask any one of the 213 legislators, everybody is on board, with knowing that the laws right now that are in place are imperiling the safety of individuals who are using this type of transportation," said state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, whose 49th Senate District includes the Amsterdam area, home to many of those who died.

Meanwhile, questions about the safety of the oddly configured rural Schoharie intersection where state routes 30 and 30A meet linger -- and will surface again.

"For me, speaking as a civil engineer, that intersection is problematic, and what we need to realize is that there are a lot of intersections like that throughout our rural communities, and they don't get looked at," said state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who practiced engineering for 15 years before entering the Assembly.

The crash last Oct. 6 -- the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend -- occurred when a stretch 2001 Ford Excursion carrying 17 adults on a birthday party outing came down a long grade on Route 30 and traveled at high speed through the stop sign at Route 30A.

The limo sped into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, hitting a parked vehicle that in turn struck and killed two pedestrians before it slammed into a short ravine. All aboard, including the driver, were killed, in the most deadly transportation accident in the U.S. in nearly a decade.

Based on charges that the vehicle was on the road even though Prestige Limousine company operator Nauman Hussain knew the brakes had failed state inspections, Hussain faces 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. A trial in Schoharie County Court is scheduled for January.

Following revelations about the vehicle and its inspection record, state legislators wanted to act. In May, the Senate Transportation Committee heard emotional testimony from the families of victims of the Schoharie crash and a 2015 stretch limousine crash on Long Island.

At the end of the legislative session in June, the Assembly and Senate passed separate packages of bills to crack down on faulty limousines and their operators. It was too late, however, to work out the differences, and only a bill raising commercial limousine insurance requirements became law.

"In terms of preventing any future accidents, it was a major disappointment for me," said state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, who represents Schoharie County. "It will be one of my priorities as soon as we get back in session."

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, acknowledged the differences need to be worked out. "There’s some that the Senate passed separately, there’s some that we passed separately. We’ll continue to engage on those," he said during a visit to Schenectady on Thursday.

Local legislators said the priority should be on a bill that would authorize the state Department of Transportation or state police to seize limousines if they fail safety inspection and repairs aren't made quickly.

"Look, you can't inspect a limo, and have it seriously out of inspection, and wait six months or a year to say we're going to come back and inspect this again, because in the meantime, as we saw, that vehicle was not off the road," Tedisco said. "That's at the top of the list, either confiscate it, boot it, or give them two weeks to get it fixed."

Seward said he likes a bill that would set up a toll-free phone number passengers could call if they believe there's a problem in the the limo they're renting, but also agreed a seizure bill should be a priority. "One thing we need to do is, when a vehicle has been inspected and there are deficiencies, by golly, we need to make sure that vehicle is not back on the road until those deficiencies are dealt with," he said.

"That is by far the most important bill, because it gets these vehicles off the road if there's any kind of problem," Santabarbara said.

One version, however, would authorize municipal authorities as well as DOT to seize a vehicle, while the other says only the state can do it. Putting the burden on local governments, said Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, would be a new unfunded state mandate.

Santabarbara arranged a meeting in Albany last week between Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman William Magnarelli, D-Syracuse, and Kevin Cushing, whose son, Patrick, was among the crash victims. He said they urged Magnarelli and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, to meet and work out the bills' differences.

"It was a good meeting. I saw a lot of progress out of it," Santabarbara said.

State Department of Transportation spokesman Joseph Morrissey said the department doesn't take positions on proposed legislation, but noted that some laws were changed as part of the 2020 state budget's adoption in April. He noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo also proposed a confiscation bill, though it wasn't adopted.

The new laws included creating a felony for operating a limousine that causes a death, increased civil penalties for violating DOT safety regulations, giving state police and DOT clearer authority to confiscate license plates, and letting the Department of Motor Vehicles revoke registrations for limos that don't meet federal safety standards. Another new law requires state-certified inspection stations to report if a limousine that requires DOT inspection seeks a DMV inspection instead, as Hussain allegedly did.

Santabarbara, meanwhile, isn't the only official concerned about the safety of the intersection, or thinking the road design may have been a factor.

A civil lawsuit filed following the crash alleges New York state bears some of the fault, and the intersection's design is one of the reasons. Hussain and Prestige Limousine have also been sued.

Within the last two months, Seward and Tague met with DOT officials and raised concerns about the intersection. 

At that point, Route 30 has descended Oak Hill for about a mile, making a slight curve just before a stop sign. The curve was added during a reconstruction in 2010; before that, Route 30 had merged into 30A at an angle. Subsequently, after incidents there involving large trucks, DOT imposed vehicle weight limits, and in 2015 it banned commercial trucks from coming down the hill.

Tague, a lifelong resident who was Schoharie town supervisor before entering the Assembly in 2018, said he fought then for the state to lower the hill's speed limit, which is 55 mph until less than a quarter-mile from the intersection.

"These rural upstate highways, a lot them were designed in the early '50s, '60s and '70s, and now there are a lot more residences and businesses along those roads," Tague said. "There's a lot more more stopping and going than there use to be. I look at common sense on Route 30, and I really don't see why anyone has to drive that road more than 40 or 45 mph."

Seward said he came away from the meeting with the impression DOT won't consider changes until the department sees the results of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the crash. NTSB investigations look at "everything," he noted. Its investigations typically take 18 months or longer.

"I think their report is going to be very enlightening when it comes out," Seward said.

Both Seward and Tague plan to keep pushing the issue, and are hopeful DOT will listen.

"We're going to continue to work on it with them, and hopefully we can work out something," Tague said. "At the end of the day, I know DOT doesn't want accidents, and neither do we."

Current Schoharie Town Supervisor Alan Tavenner said the town is letting the investigations and court cases play out. But he, like Tague and Santabarbara, noted that the intersection isn't much different from many rural intersections.

"I think everyone agrees it was a contributing factor, but I don't think DOT is going to admit that," Tavenner said. "We've got hills all over here; all these things that used to be buggy trails and now are major highways."

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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